Friday, March 06, 2009

Robert Desnos: And before your eyes, the grass and its flowers

"Even in the grimmest of circumstances, a shift in perspective can create startling change.

I am thinking of a story I heard a few years ago from my friend Odette, a writer and a survivor of the holocaust. Along with many others who crowd the bed of a large truck, she tells me, the surrealist poet Robert Desnos is being taken away from the barracks of the concentration camp where he has been held prisoner. Leaving the barracks, the mood is somber; everyone knows the truck is headed for the gas chambers. And when the truck arrives no one can speak at all; even the guards fall silent. But this silence is soon interrupted by an energetic man, who jumps into the line and grabs one of the condemned. Improbable as it is, Odette told me, Desnos reads the man's palm.

Oh, he says, I see you have a very long lifeline. And you are going to have three children. He is exuberant. And his excitement is contagious. First one man, then another, offers up his hand, and the prediction is for longevity, more children, abundant joy.

As Desnos reads more palms, not only does the mood of the prisoners change but that of the guards too. How can one explain it? Perhaps the element of surprise has planted a shadow of doubt in their minds. If they told themselves these deaths were inevitable, this no longer seems inarguable. They are in any case so disoriented by this sudden change of mood among those they are about to kill that they are unable to go through with the executions. So all the men, along with Desnos, are packed back onto the truck and taken back to the barracks. Desnos has saved his own life [temporarily] and the lives of others by using his imagination... In his mind he simply stepped outside the world as it was created by the SS."

* * * * *

robert desnos painting hands surrealist
                                                       I lived in those times. For a thousand years
                                                       I have been dead. Not fallen, but hunted;
                                                       When all human decency was imprisoned,
                                                       I was free amongst the masked slaves.

                                                       I lived in those times, yet I was free.
                                                       I watched the river, the earth, the sky,
                                                       Turning around me, keeping their balance,
                                                       The seasons provided their birds and their honey.

                                                       You who live, what have you made of your luck?
                                                       Do you regret the time when I struggled?
                                                       Have you cultivated for the common harvest?
                                                       Have you enriched the town I lived in?

                                                       Living men, think nothing of me. I am dead.
                                                       Nothing survives of my spirit or my body.

-Robert Desnos (1900-1945)


Hectocotylus said...

The first part of this post is an excerpt from the essay To Love the Marigold by Susan Griffin. If you would like to read it in its entirety, click here.

the curator said...
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the curator said...

I was looking for this in French and had a difficult time finding it, so I am posting the French here in case others are having the same trouble.

In my searching, I also came across this recording of the actor Pierre Brasseur reading the poem: link. (The couplet is read very quietly, so the volume should be turned up.)


L'Epitaphe de Robert Desnos

J'ai vécu dans ces temps et depuis mille années
Je suis mort. Je vivais, non déchu mais traqué.
Toute noblesse humaine étant emprisonnée
J'étais libre parmi les esclaves masqués.

J'ai vécu dans ces temps et pourtant j'étais libre.
Je regardais le fleuve et la terre et le ciel
Tourner autour de moi, garder leur équilibre
Et les saisons fournir leurs oiseaux et leur miel.

Vous qui vivez qu'avez vous fait de ces fortunes ?
Regrettez vous les temps où je me débattais ?
Avez vous cultivé pour des moissons communes ?
Avez vous enrichi la ville où j'habitais ?

Vivants, ne craignez rien de moi, car je suis mort.
Rien ne survit de mon esprit ni de mon corps.

Hectocotylus said...

Interesting that his reading of the third stanza is filled with indignation. In my mind Desnos was presenting these tough questions in a more mournful, resigned way.

The two interpretations make for very different poems; I like them both.